Taking a bow: Queens stars Eve, Brandy, Naturi Naughton and Nadine Velazquez
Brandy as Naomi/Xplicit Lyrics
Eve as Brianna/Professor Sex
Nadine Velazquez as Valeria/Butter Pecan
Naturi Naughton as Jill/Da Thrill
Pepi Sonuga as Lauren/Lil Muffin
Queens, ABC's new drama about four members of a '90s rap supergroup who reunite twenty years later, opens with a bang, literally — pyrotechnic explosions as part of a spot-on recreation of a big-budget MTV video from 1999.
All the rap video hallmarks are there: a mansion, a yacht, cocksure emcees posturing with bravado. There's a glaring difference between this group and every other rap group of the era, though: all the rappers are women.
Performing "Nasty Girl," a fictional chart-topping single from a fictional group, the rappers — Professor Sex (real-life rapper Eve), Da Thrill (Naturi Naughton), Butter Pecan (Nadine Velazquez) and Xplicit Lyrics (Brandy) — writhe suggestively in bikinis and prison-inspired jumpsuits while commanding shirtless men with flicks of their wrists. Together, they are the Nasty Bitches. If that name sounds over the top and slightly cringy, it's supposed to. Queens's creator, writer and executive producer, Zahir McGhee (Private Practice, Scandal), says he found inspiration for the group's name in the unlikeliest of places: the 2016 election cycle.
"I was appalled at how the word 'nasty' was leveled at Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton," he says. "I wanted a name that was a little bit controversial, but one the ladies would own, like they were taking ownership of something that was being levied against them — words that continue to be used against women today. That is a conversation that's going to be ongoing in our show, which is, 'Is that the right thing for us now today?'"
Queens is both of the moment and overdue. You don't need to be a hip-hop aficionado to know that, right now, ladies are ruling rap — and by extension, pop music and pop culture — in ways that male rappers are not. Cardi B, a fixture of International Fashion Week and the mother of multiple number-one hits, has such monumental fame that in 2020, candidate Joe Biden recruited her to drum up votes. At this year's Grammys, Megan Thee Stallion became only the third solo rapper, male or female, to win Best New Artist. Saweetie is so popular that McDonald's named a meal after her this past summer.
It wasn't always like this. Ever since rap bloomed out of the decay of 1970s New York, women rappers have been sidelined or dismissed — damned with such faint praise as, "You're nice for a girl." Hip-hop culture of the 1990s, the era in which the Nasty Bs' origin story begins, is often reduced to gangsta rap on the West Coast and the Timberland boot-stomping ruggedness of Wu- Tang Clan or The Notorious B.I.G. on the East Coast.
There's much more nuance, of course, and plenty of exceptions, from A Tribe Called Quest to Missy Elliott to Lauryn Hill. But the reality is that few women broke through rap's rhinestone ceiling to get the same respect as men. A lot of time was spent, as Queen Latifah did on her seminal 1993 song "U.N.I.T.Y.," demanding not to be called a bitch or a ho. That's one reason Queens's backstory is such a clever conceit. Apart from Salt-N-Pepa, there actually wasn't an all-girl rap group in the 1990s; female rappers of that era were solo acts or the sole woman in a group of men. By reimagining the past, Queens makes a big statement about the now.
"They're all dealing with this rebirth, asking if you can redefine yourself at forty years old," McGhee says of the foursome. "That's particularly interesting for women in hip-hop, where you're done at a certain age. Hip-hop is complicated, and we want to talk about the things we love about hip-hop, and the things that are difficult."
LIKE RAP ITSELF, Queens delights in irony and thoughtful spins on reality, starting with its name. the Nasty Bs' hometown of Queens, New York, holds a mythical status in rap history, having birthed Salt-N-Pepa, Nicki Minaj and many others. And the show title itself reads as a cheeky nod to the music royalty in the cast.
Younger viewers may know Eve (Eve, Barbershop), Brandy (Moesha, Cinderella) and Naughton (Power) best as actors and media personalities, but Eve, who has two platinum albums, is one of the most beloved rappers of all time. Brandy, who talks often about her love for the form, can count many collaborations with rappers among the 40 million records she's sold in her career. Naughton, meanwhile, was in the '90s girl group 3LW and played rap icon Lil' Kim in the 2009 biopic Notorious. Velazquez, best known for her breakout role as Catalina on My Name Is Earl, is the sole member without a music background, but she represents the sizable impact Puerto Rican artists have made on the music.
Collectively, the Queens cast forms a staggering nexus of power, glamour and longevity in a male-dominated, male-run industry. The casting is, as the kids say, a serious flex, conferring unmatched authenticity on the series, since these women know exactly what it's like to be forty-something performers who actually did go through the trenches of the music industry in the 1990s.
"I'm literally reliving my life," says Naughton, who, on this day was shooting a scene that had her character, Jill, appearing on MTV Cribs. "I actually did MTV Cribs. We had to rent a house and rent cars we drove in the driveway. I have lived this experience."
Naughton, as part of 3LW, got her record deal in 1999. She was fifteen. "It all really resonates," she continues. "Especially back in the day, there was a lot of taking advantage of young women — deals where they don't make any money, or girls fighting, pitted against each other. It's showing a lot of things in the past we were afraid to talk about."
Yet Queens is not an industry exposé thinly veiled as primetime dramatic fiction. Indeed, all four actors say that while the industry mechanics depicted are fairly accurate, the characters' inner conflicts vary greatly from their own, and it took a while for them to find and understand the women they're playing. Queens, McGhee says, is really about "this push and pull of what pieces of our past can be grabbed, and what pieces are useful to us."
WHEN WE MEET THE NASTY Bs in the present day, they're no longer in contact. Eve's Brianna is a suburban housewife and burnt-out mother of five. Jill is a recovering addict who's lost herself in religion and a sexless marriage that hides an inconvenient truth. Velazquez's Valeria is struggling to hold on to her career as a TV pundit, and Brandy's Naomi is scraping by as a musician, taking any gig she can to support herself and win the respect of the teenage daughter she abandoned for music.
Their kinda shifty former manager, Eric Jones (Taylor Selé), reunites them after a hot young rapper, Lil Muffin (Pepi Sonuga), samples their hit, "Nasty Girl." In part to shield Lil Muffin from the dangers of the business and in part to revive their own sleepy lives, the Nasty Bs reluctantly embark on a new tour. As forty-somethings, they've navigated marital woes, spiritual conflicts, career drama and parenting pains. None of that is typically fodder for a Top 40 hit, of course, but the women find that not only do they still have it, everything they've gone through has made them wiser and stronger and sexier than ever.
"These women are not trying to recapture the past. They are moving on from where they are now, and it's important to show that," says Eve, whose Professor Sex character stands in contrast to the tough, "ride-or-die chick" image she conveyed when she gained fame among the pack of male rappers called the Ruff Ryders.
"Age is so different than it used to be back in the day when I was coming out," she says. "Someone [trying to be sexy] at forty? It would be like, 'Yo, what are you doing?'" But things are different these days, with performers like Beyoncé (forty) and Jennifer Lopez (fifty-two) obliterating preconceptions about how women are supposed to look, sound or behave as they mature. "They're not trying to be kids," Eve says. "They're the real 'grown and sexy.'"
And while yes, the industry can be demoralizing, Brandy says, Queens's message is ultimately about empowerment — these are women who bounce back rather than stay down. "It's a strength in seeing us come together and doing what we think should be done our way," the singer says. "This industry can make you stop. I've actually stopped. A few times. I've gone away and come back. But I always come back. I can speak for the other ladies [in the cast] and say that about them, too — they go hard. And I love that. We represent overcoming."
QUEENS IS JUST PLAIN FUN, too, thanks in large part to the soundtrack. Naturally, a story about a hip-hop group with hip-hop stars in the cast has to come correct with the actual music. As anyone who's ever watched a performer get booed at the Apollo Theater knows, this audience takes music seriously, and it can be merciless. Reputations are at stake.
So it may come as some surprise that the artists didn't write their own songs. When Eve learned that was part of the deal, she had to surrender some control and rely on trust.
"I was really stressed about that in the beginning," she admits. "I was like 'Zahir, we cannot be out here sounding horrible — people are going to kill us.'" That, however, was before studio wizard Swizz Beatz (Kasseem Dean), founder of the Ruff Ryders label — which originally introduced Eve to the public — came aboard as executive music producer. Eve recalls, "Once I saw Swizz was on board, I said, 'Oh, we're good.'"
Although Brandy does some singing, including a heartbreakingly gorgeous ballad to her character's estranged daughter in the pilot, she mostly raps. Xplicit Lyrics raps with a macho, grimy style that enables Brandy to tap into a side she rarely shows.
"I've always wanted to rap," says Brandy, who's dabbled with the form off and on, occasionally under the alter ego B Rocka. In fact, her very first single, "I Wanna Be Down," was remixed in 1995 to let Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Yo- Yo rap while Brandy sings the hook; it's still regarded as one of the best hip-hop/ R&B collaborations of all time, and a blueprint for a knockout all-girl jam. "We're rapping like men, like Nas or Biggie," Brandy says. "It's very challenging because sometimes I get the words twisted, and it's a little tiring, but I push myself until I get it. I love it."
Velazquez's lack of a musical background makes her turn as Butter Pecan all the more impressive — growing up in a Pentecostal Christian household, she wasn't allowed to listen to secular music until she got a radio at around age thirteen. For her, preparation meant discovering the long list of Latinx people who helped build hip-hop culture, and studying legendary performers such as Selena, J.Lo and Cardi B.
"I get out of my comfort zone and create an energy that's a combination of all those women," Velazquez says. Studying pop stars helped her gain an appreciation for how these women use their bodies to exert power, and that spilled over into her off-camera life, too. "Their comfort with being in their body — how okay they are with themselves — I feel more freedom, and less in my head."
McGHEE IS NOT OBLIVIOUS to Queens's most glaring paradox: that he's a man who's crafted a series about the interiors of Black women's minds. Seven of the show's nine writers are women, but he created it, pitched it and wrote the pilot. At this time of increased emphasis on authentic representations in storytelling, such an undertaking came with a degree of risk. Not a fear of being "canceled" but of missing nuances, of inaccurately capturing a point of view inherently different from his own. Knowing his blind spots motivated him to make sure he was getting their voices right. "I said to all my actors, 'I know what I'm not, and I'm not a Black woman. If any of this ever feels like bullshit to you, you gotta tell me.'"
Men definitely can get it wrong, Eve says, especially when it comes to conveying women's thoughts and emotions. "But Zahir gets it so right," she adds. "I honestly can't answer why, but he does." Brandy says she was so entranced with the pilot, she hadn't even considered Zahir's gender. "I think he really studied who we are, and what hip-hop is. He's writing us into history."
One foot in the present and one foot into a fully femmed future, Queens reaches back into the past to do what a lot of men should've done a long time ago: hand women the mic and get out of their way.
"I feel a tremendous responsibility to get it right," McGhee says. "I feel incredible pride in the fact that we're putting a show on the ABC network with four women of color front and center. I want to do these women justice."
Executive-producing with McGhee are Sabrina Wind and Tim Story, who also directed the pilot; the series is a production of ABC Signature. Catch-up viewing is available on Hulu.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 12, 2021